Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Vigil for My Father

[I'm now back in Colorado, and after a week of getting the house and garden in order, I'm ready to finish the tale.]

On Monday, July 4th, Dad was cremated.

I can honestly say I don't remember what all we must've done on Monday, but I know that one fact for certain. On Tuesday we held Visitation Hours at the funeral home for dad.

Considering that I really had no idea why we "needed" visitation hours, it turns out that the second session was the absolute best part of the whole death ritual. Even better than the funeral itself, for me at the very least.

We walked into the oddly hushed room, where the walls were lined with ancient sofas from a time long gone. Just as uncomfortable now as they were when originally purchased, no one had ever sat on them for comfort or had time to get the seat to conform to their shape. I walked in with Eric, Cindy and Jason, but without the children. We had hired a sitter to keep them from lighting the house on fire and from expiring from utter boredom at such a decidedly child-unfriendly event. Random people populated the room, random photographs were strewn across a coffee table. In the back of the room, flowers were on display; huge bouquets of flowers from friends and family members, the bank where dad worked and friends from church. The displays were lovely.

Flanked on either side by the flowers was a console table and two photos of my father.

One was from his early banking days, he was probably just 30 and looked as if he'd just stepped out of a scene from Mad Men; stiff white shirt, dark tie, sharp black suit and glasses that brooked no nonsense.

The other was from just a year ago; 77 years old and wearing one of his ubiquitous sweaters and wool driving caps.

The two photos encompassed about 47 years of his life, but couldn't even begin to express all the living that occurred between one and the next. Yet somehow they managed to capture a little something about dad. Was it the twinkle in his eye? A bit of a smirk where another might've grinned? It's hard to say just what you saw when perusing these pictures, but you definitely understood that it was my father, your uncle/cousin/friend/husband.

In the center of the console table was the urn.

It was pretty, sitting there, lit with a quiet understatement and yet a heavy presence. Here lie the ashes of a man... It suddenly struck me that all that remained of my father was in that itty bitty steel vessel and it stunned me that all of him could fit in there. A lump formed suddenly in my throat and tears leapt to my eyes. The reality of the moment settled heavily on my shoulders, reinforced by the abnormal hush, the somewhat dusty scent, the ancient sofas and striped wall hangings.

It took me a moment to collect myself, catch my breath and find my words once more. Quiet greetings murmured to people I didn't know, people I should have known and cousins I'd never known about. We took a break for dinner (and yet more doughnuts) and then returned for the final set of visiting hours and the eulogy. In the second hour, the folks I recognized began to appear. They trickled into the room in groups of two or three; cousins, old friends from dad's Jamaica days, his school friends, his nieces and nephew. My family. My parent's community. The characters that all held memories of dad that differed from mine, slices of his past, pieces of his personality.

My kid sister (fun to still call her that, at 32 and a mother of 2 children) took to the floor and read the eulogy that she had prepared and had printed out in 18 point font. It took up three pages, not because it was just that long, but because the font size was that large just in case it became a tad difficult to see. Smart girl, that one.

She told us of early morning piggyback rides down the stairs and coffee shared with a 5 year old; Christmas stockings that were never large enough and overflow candy ending up in size 13 shoe boxes beneath the stockings. She asked us to remember him as he was, not as he became and not as a victim of Alzheimer's, because dad would've wanted it that way.

When she finished, she looked me in the eye and wanted me to take the floor. I wasn't ready yet, so I had Dawn (my older sister) go up instead.

Dawn spoke of dad's years as a track star and how he could still beat her in a race back when she was in high school. How he spoke of practice and working hard at your goals. Next it was my turn.

Being me, I didn't want to regale the crowd with my memory of dad whilst standing up. It was rather like being on a stage, minus the trappings of an auditorium and the comfortable seats. Instead, I pulled up a bench, since I wasn't certain if I could stand and speak or if the formality of it would bring me to tears.

In my memory, we were somewhere in Canada on a family camping trip, deep in the woods, roughly 27 years ago. Dad and I had gone for a walk away from the family and tent, down towards a distant lake. As we walked along through the forest, we kept quiet and listened to the jays calling overhead; the sound of leaves and small branches crunching damply underfoot; smelled that rich aroma of pine and decay and fresh air that permeates a forest; felt the breeze on our cheeks and we just were there, together. Just us. Quiet. Peaceful. Serene. At the lake was a single loon, calling. I called back and it responded as it swam. We called back and forth for awhile as my father watched me, quietly amused at my antics. As the loon swam out of sight, dad took my hand and we turned to go. Just a father and a daughter. Quietly together, far from home.

As I finished and stood up, I turned to my brother whose turn had come to speak. He had chosen to speak last for reasons of his own.

He started off well enough and then the tears overtook him. Seeing him struggle, I was overwhelmed with empathy and grabbed a handful of tissues for him, then stood beside him as he collected himself and carried on. I figured he needed to say whatever it was he wanted to tell this room full of folks who had come to pay their respects. So I stood there, with my arms around my not-so-little little brother who towered over me at 6' tall and supported him as he spoke. We may have our issues, he and I, but in that moment, he needed someone and I stepped up. I don't remember what he said, exactly, but I remember he was glad when he was done and shuddered in relief.

After we 4 kids were through, a small trickle of cousins and friends stepped up to share their stories.

One of my dad's nieces, Nancy, told us a story about how dad would visit and turn their entire house upside down.
That's Nancy, standing behind Mom and Joan.

He'd bring laughter and joy with him when he came to see his eldest sister and her brood. He baked a pineapple upside-down cake, doubling the batch which spilled out of the pan in its enthusiasm and then woke the kids to come have a slice, in the middle of the night. He made them laugh. He took them camping. He had them stay with us in NY while they were visiting or in school, or just passing through. I love their memories of him, so filled with life.

The stories continued from one person to the next. Words wrapped us up together in comfort; laughter burst forth sporadically and we passed the time together, if not happily at least meaningfully and joyfully.

Dad's oldest friend, Joan, was the last person to speak.

She told us of a terribly mischievous boy, forever hounding her and leaving her bruised, who somehow turned into a perfectly bidding boy at the call of his mother. She also explained, once and for all, that she was not, nor had she ever been, his girlfriend. The room rocked with laughter and mom, who had been sitting next to Joan the whole time, laughed long and loud and tightened her grip on Joan's hand.

Mom knew all the stories. She'd heard them all again and again.Over the years, mom had turned into my father's external memory deposit. She kept all of the strands of his past together in her head, since he couldn't anymore. And while she didn't say a word or share any of her memories of dad that day, she thanked each person that spoke in turn and warmed herself with their words.


Cassy said...

Once again, I am teary eyed while I read your post. I have been reading your previous post.

Cassy from Best Online Guitar Lessons

kimik said...

i'm so sorry for your loss and am thinking about you.

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